By Joe Stumpe
Cindy Entriken was helping her grandmother clean out the house she’d lived in for 55 years when she came across a “ratty pile of papers tied with dirty string.”
“I said, ‘What is this?’ She said, ‘Those are the letters your great aunt wrote during the war.’ ”
Nearly three decades later, Entriken has turned those letters and a whole lot of research into a book, “Ila’s War,” told from the perspective of her great aunt, Ila Armsbury.
And what a perspective it is. The Kansas portion of the book covers, among other things, a confrontation with the Ku Klux Klan in Lincoln, Kan., and the arrest of Ila’s father — Entriken’s great grandfather — on charges of white slavery in Russell County. “He was a real scoundrel,” Entriken said.
There’s the havoc of dust storms during the “Dirty ’30s; the crippling of five Lincoln men who drank adulterated “Jake,” an alcoholic beverage popular during Prohibition; and Armsbury’s work as an obstetrics nurse in Kansas City, Kan., slums during the late 1930s.
The book then follows Armsbury’s experiences during World War II, when she was stationed as an Army nurse at Camp Cable, Australia. The 155th Station Hospital treated soldiers wounded in battles in New Guinea, and the camp received more than 2,000 U.S. Marines — all sick with malaria — who’d been evacuated from Guadalcanal just before Christmas 1942, according to Entriken’s research. Her great aunt fought the Army Board of Disposition to stay in the Army Nurse Corps and struggled with post-traumatic stress after the war.
Entriken admits she did little with the letters upon first finding them in 1991.
“The older I got, the more I realized there was a really interesting story there,” Entriken said.
Before Armsbury’s death in 2003, she spent two weeks staying with Entriken, who made a tape recording of her great aunt telling her life story. “She was really shocked that anybody had kept (the letters) and that anybody was interested.”
The 475 pages of letters that Armsbury wrote to Entriken’s great grandparents actually started in 1934, when Armbury was a new student in the University of Kansas’ nursing program. The last letter dates from 1946.
Entriken got serious about writing Ila’s story in 2008. She interviewed other family members, hired a researcher in Australia to help gather information and another in Arlington, Va., to retrieve military records.
She compared writing the book to “the longest labor pains you can imagine.”
“I was writing and rewriting. I foolishly thought because I have two master’s degrees and have done a lot (of writing) over the years, that writing a book couldn’t be that hard.”
She eventually hired a professional editor in Colorado to help with the project. “He was brutal. If anyone thinks I’m a good writer, it’s because of him.”
Entriken tells the story in the form of a first-person memoir, which she feels was justified because she had so many written and recorded words of her great aunt to work from. An afterword contains information that Armsbury could not have known.
Entriken believes the book will especially resonate with readers of her generation — she is 70 — who probably grew up hearing tales of the war and Kansas during the 1920s and ‘30s. Entriken doubts whether she’ll ever recoup what she spent producing the book through book sales, but says the money and years she invested were worth it.
“Ila’s War” was released on Nov. 11, Veteran’s Day, complete with a blurb from Ramon Powers, retired executive director of the Kansas State Historical Society. Powers called it a “compelling story with vivid sketches, drawn from original sources . . .The world of a rural Kansas family in the 1920s and 1930s and a woman in the service of her country during wartime are vividly presented.”
More recently, KU Medical School in Kansas City shared Armsbury’s story on its website as part of Womens’ History Month.
Win a copy of ‘Ila’s War’
Much of the information in “Ila’s War” came from letters written in the 1930s and ’40s, plus the memories of people who lived back then.
Do you have similar store of second-hand memories passed down to you in the form of letters, photographs or conversations you remember with your parents, grandparents or others? If so, The Active Age would like to hear about them.
In 200 words or less, tell us about your favorite second-hand memory, including where it came from. We will enter the names of everybody who submits a memory into a drawing for an autographed copy of “Ila’s War,” plus an “Ila’s War” coffee cup to enjoy with the book.
To enter, email firstname.lastname@example.org (please put “memories” in the subject line) or mail your entry to:
The Active Age, 125 S. West St., Suite 105, Wichita, Kan., 67213
Where to find it
“Ila’s War” is available at cindyentriken.com and on amazon.com, $4.99 Kindle, $19.99 paperback and $25 hard cover. A blog featuring Ila Armsbury’s recorded voice can also be found on cindyentriken.com,.